14 Aug 2022

Merit in extending Offaly hurling championship format to other grades

De javu for Offaly football referees

Merit in extending Offaly hurling championship format to other grades

Marius Stones, the senior football final referee

NO one really knew what to expect when an innovative new format was put in place for the Senior and Junior Hurling Championships this year.

With ten teams in each championship, the County Board decided to run two groups of five but with the teams criss-crossing and playing the teams in the other group. However, they had learnt lessons from the past and instead of the points counting in their own group, it was the total points record that decided who went through.

The criss-cross system had operated in football before but the points only counted in their own group and it created all sorts of anomalies – it didn't happen but it meant that it was technically possible for all the teams in one group to lose all their games, and teams to qualify with no point.

As a result, they went with the best overall record and this was much better. In the Senior and Junior Hurling Championship, the ten teams were shown in the one table with the top four teams going into two semi-finals and the bottom two into a relegation play off.

It worked better than they could have hoped. While teams had a lot of margin for error with five games, it meant that there was something at stake in every round and as the championship progressed, it created a welter of excitement. Clubs paid very dear prices for poor results as it wore on – Ballinamere never really recovered from a first round loss to Shinrone while Birr's defeat by Belmont was a pure disaster for them.

It all resulted in a spectactular crescendo last Sunday in the Senior Hurling Championship. Only champions, St Rynagh's were guaranteed qualification and they were the only side who took their eye off the ball. Full credit to Birr for their display in a fantastic 1-23 to 0-13 win. It was a sensational result for them but would it have happened in a knockout game or one where qualification was at stake for the Banagher based club? Almost certainly not.

Drumcullen and Seir Kieran were also out of the race and condemned to the relegation play off but Seir Kieran performed with fantastic spirit, giving Coolderry a huge fright and pushing them to the wire.

The tension and anxiety in some of the venues last Sunday was incredible and is what championship is all about. Kilcormac-Killoughey and Coolderry were on six points going into the last round and knew that they couldn't really be caught – K-K had a very easy win over Drumcullen and even if Coolderry had lost to Seir Kieran, their scoring difference was so good that they couldn't be caught.

Birr, Shinrone, Kinnitty, Belmont and Ballinamere were all on four points, battling for one qualifying spot and it was so exciting. Belmont and Ballinamere knew that the odds were against them and they drew, which could have been a very important result for Shinrone. As the second half wore on in both venues, it became clear that qualification would boil down to Birr and Shinrone.

If three teams finished on six points, scoring difference would have decided who went through – as it turned out, the draw between Belmont and Ballinamere meant that only Birr and Shinrone hit the six point mark and Shinrone went through on the head to head rule as they had already beaten Birr.

However, it would normally have been three teams and fortunes ebbed and flowed as Birr and Shinrone chased big winning margins against Rynagh's and Kinnitty. At one stage, Birr had their noses in front but as the score from their match got through to the Shinrone squad, they kept the foot to the floor, firing over points from all over the place and a twenty point win eventually gave them a three point better scoring difference.

The Junior Hurling Championship, unfortunately, did not generate the same excitement on Saturday when its final round took place. Three clubs, Edenderry, Gracefield and Clodiagh Gaels conceded walkovers, meaning that scoring difference can't be used and play offs will be used to determine who joins Brosna Gaels and Ballinamere in the semi-finals: Tullamore, Shamrocks, Kilcormac-Killoughey and Coolderry will play two play offs, with the two winners going on.

It is a shame that this happened and it does not reflect well on the three clubs who conceded walkovers. The three were out of contention for semi-final places and walkovers can happen at junior level. There can be all sorts of reasons for being down players while Edenderry are playing the junior football final this Saturday – that, however, does not provide any sort of legitimate reason for conceding a walkover.

Enthusiasm can go when a team is out of contention but clubs really should leave no stone unturned to field teams and uphold the integrity of the championship. They are not being fair to other clubs and the Competitions Control Committee who now to find space for two additional fixtures.

Irrespective of that, there is merit in introducing a similar format for other championships. There were pragmatic reasons why it was used in senior and junior hurling – with two groups of five, one team would have had a free weekend every round if they went with a conventional format where you played the same teams in your group and it still wouldn't save a weekend.

Not every championship should be brought up to ten teams, particularly senior. It is too much for senior hurling where Drumcullen and Seir Kieran have shipped some bad beatings and it would be too many for senior football. But even with that, consideration should be given to having the two groups of four criss-crossing in senior football and the other competitions where there are eight teams – it would require an extra round of group games, four instead of three, but the excitement and drama at the end of it all would make it all worthwhile.

De javu for Offaly football referees

SOME Offaly football referees will be experiencing a sensation of de javu when they take charge of the big football finals next weekend.

Clara's Marius Stones will take charge of the Senior Football Championship final between Rhode and Tullamore; Ballycommon's Eamon O'Connor is the man in the middle for the Senior “B” Football Championship final between Clara and Tubber and Kilclonfert's Fergal Smyth will have the whistle for the Intermediate Football Championship decider between Clonbullogue and Raheen.

Interestingly the three men took charge of the exact same three finals last year. Stones was also the referee for Rhode v Tullamore in senior, O'Connor took charge of Durrow v Gracefield in the SFC “B” final and Smyth was the man for the IFC final between St Rynagh's and Kilcormac-Killoughey.

The appointment of these referees raises some interesting questions for the Offaly GAA Competitions Control Committee. They are obviously three very good referees, three of the best in Offaly and these comments are no reflection on their ability.

However, is it right to give the same referees these finals or should they be spread out among other referees?

Do you give them to who you consider to be the best referees in each year with the result that the same man could referee the senior final for a number of years in a row? If that was the case, it certainly could have happened in the heyday of St Rynagh's Pat Horan and Clara's Brian Gavin when they were refereeing All-Ireland finals.

It is a tricky situation for the decision makers. Obviously finals deserve the most capable men in the middle but there are some disillusioned referees in Offaly this week after these appointments.

No more than a player having to accept when not picked for a team, they should take it on the chin and strive to be better; to find out what they can do to improve. However, they are also entitled to see evidence that there will be a reward for good displays and improvement – and for most referees, this reward very much comes in the form of county finals and big games.

There will be different opinions about the appointment of the same referees for two years in a row for the three biggest football games in Offaly and there are some who have no problem with it and believe they are right.

The issue here is not the ability of Stones, O'Connor and Smyth to referee the finals well. They handle the vast majority of their games very well. It is simply if it is right or wrong to give the same men the same final for two years in a row and that is a call for the decision makers – and they will be fully aware of the need to recruit new referees and retain the ones they have while retaining the need to make unpopular decisions and not be held over a barrell by anyone.

Trivia corner

Last week's answers were:

1 - How many All-Ireland senior hurling semi-finals did Martin Hanamy play before he won one?

Answer: 3 (1988, 1989 and 1990)/.

2 – No club can claim to have won three junior football titles in a row? One parish did win three in successive years. When and name the clubs?

Answer: Tullamore parish – St Columba's 1982, Ballinamere 1983 and Tullamore 1984.

3 – Offaly's first victory over Louth in the Leinster SFC was at the ninth attempt. When?

Answer: 1955.

This week's questions are:

1 – When did Damian Martin play his last game for Offaly?

2 – How many Offaly men won All-Ireland minor football medals in 1964 and went on to win All-Ireland senior medals on the field of play?

3 – Name the man who captained Offaly in the Leinster senior hurling finals of 1926 and 1928, played from 1913 to 1937 and won eight senior hurling championship medals with Drumcullen?

Answers in the next column. With thanks to former referee Carthage Buckley for supplying the questions.

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